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A History of Mountains and People

Click to view the APPALACHIA website
Narrated by
Academy Award Winner Sissy Spacek

A Four-Part Series by Jamie Ross and Ross Spears

The First Environmental History Series ever made in America

Named BEST VIDEO OF THE YEAR by the American Library Association

IMDb Link

"The filmmakers, Ross Spears and Jamie Ross, have broken the mold and produced an entirely new kind of film. The cinematography is stunning. The script is masterful in its flowing and seamless integration of science, natural history, and culture. Spears and Ross have produced a series of films that not only warms the heart, but exudes authority, credibility, and powerful insight."
        Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, Co-Editors of The Encyclopedia of Appalachia

Featuring E.O. Wilson, Barbara Kingsolver, Lamar Marshall, Harvard Ayers, Ron Eller, Wilma Dykeman, Mary Lee Settle, Sharyn McCrumb, Freeman Owle, Judy Bonds, Helen Lewis, Nikki Giovanni, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, George Constantz, Chris Bolgiano, and many more.

Appalachia is a national treasure. It is a region stretching from New York to Alabama, comprising the oldest mountains in North America. It is home to the most ancient forest in the world and one of the greatest collections of mineral wealth on the planet. From the early sixteenth century when the region's name first entered the historical record, Appalachia has been a place of mystery and mythology. It has been romanticized, maligned, discovered, rediscovered, exploited, redefined, but only vaguely understood. In fact, more is known about Appalachia that is untrue than about any other region of the country.

APPALACHIA: A History of Mountains and People is the first film series ever to chronicle the riveting history of one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth and the diverse peoples who have inhabited them. Ten years in the making, this four-part series weaves the insights of both the sciences and the humanities into a spellbinding portrait of one of the world’s great ecological treasures.

The central characters of the series are the Appalachian Mountains themselves. The central theme is the story of how the mountains have shaped the people and how people have shaped the mountains — the dynamic interaction of natural history and human history.

Appalachia is unlike any other region in America. Nowhere else in America is the ancient history of the earth so openly revealed as in these mountains. And nowhere else in America is the story of man’s interaction with nature so dramatically evident.

At the same time, Appalachia is quintessentially American. Surrounded by half the population and two-thirds of the industry in the United States, Appalachia has experienced in full force the impact of humans on a mountain ecosystem. Here in Appalachia, the tensions between private ownership and public good have been played out over and over.

The story begins with the birth of the mountains during what the writer John McPhee has termed “Deep Time.” It chronicles the spectacular geologic upheavals which created an immense treasure of minerals carpeted by the richest temperate forest in the world. The story continues with those who came seeking the treasures of the land — from the first nomads ten thousand years ago to today’s hikers on the Applachian Trail.

APPALACHIA is the story of the Shawnee, the Iroquois and the Cherokee; the story of the first Spanish explorers and the early settlers: German, French, Scotch-Irish and African. APPALACHIA is the story of Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War atrocities, of union campaigns and absentee landlords, of environmental destruction, the TVA, and the first Eastern national park creation. APPALACHIA is the story of larger than life characters such as Daniel Boone, Attacullaculla, William Bartram, Mother Jones, and Thomas Wolfe. It is the story of the black bear, the white-tailed deer, the spotted slalmander, and the American chestnut tree. It is also the story of mountaintop removal mining, the most destructive mining practice the world has ever known.

Above all, APPALACHIA provides a window onto the defining question of our age; how to use the land to provide the needs of today and at the same time preserve it for the future. The story of Appalachia is the story of our struggle as a people to find our true and proper relationship to the natural world.

Part One –  Time and Terrain

The series begins with one of the Earth's oldest mountain ranges. We see tectonic plates collide in a slow dance which raises the mountains we now know as the Appalachians. In Appalachia, we soon discover, geology is destiny. We trace the evolution of the Great Forest which blankets the region in green, forming a home for a unique mosaic of plant and animal species: the most diverse temperate forest in the world.

We watch as the first humans, who arrived as early as 14,000 years ago, develop a complex and sophisticated relationship with the natural world. We see portraits of Appalachia's Principal People at the time of European contact: the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Iroquois - vibrant, adaptive cultures with finely tuned relationships to their environment, a complex ecological community with amazing biological diversity. The arrival of the Europeans signals vast cultural and biological upheavals.

Part Two –  New Green World

Two cultures, Native American and European, collide in a struggle for control of the mountains. In the conquest of new land, first come the surveyors and mapmakers, including young George Washington, then come the road and cabin builders. From ecologists, historians, and Cherokee archivists, we hear of the vast differences between the Native American and the European perceptions of the land and its resources, all of which comes to a head when gold is discovered in 1829 in the hills of Georgia. Once again, geology is destiny.

We see the tragic attempt to completely remove the Native Americans, with their centuries old ecological philosophy, from their homeland. We see a new inhabitant, the European pioneer, carving out a life on the Appalachia frontier, coming to terms with the wilderness, and creating a way of life unique to the mountains.

Part Three –  Mountaintop Revolutions

The American Civil War transforms an agrarian region with three generations of European farmers nestled in an old forest ecosystem into a sharply divided, economically weakened region ripe for industrial development.

“The race for the prize is on,” writes Harper’s Magazine in 1872 as railroads push ever further into the mountains. Land buyers spread through every timber rich and mineral infused hollow, making deals and altering life forever. Part Three of the series continues the story as Appalachia confronts a new industrial age.

The story takes place in the Great Forest, where virgin timber still abounds as late as 1880. Coal camps replace mountain farms; missionary schools spring up; mountain life is assailed by outside journalists. The land, the people, the wildlife and the culture are forever changed as coal is dug out and the ancient trees felled to fuel a nation’s booming industrial economy. Natural resources flow out of the mountains in a massive flood.

Part Four –  Power and Place

The story of Twentieth Century Appalachia is the story of a rich, deeply conflicted region forging its own distinct identity. The first American school of scientific forestry is begun in North Carolina by Gifford Pinchot in the cutover forest of a millionaire’s new estate - a tiny ray of hope in a deeply exploited region.

From the union battles of the 1920’s to the death of the American Chestnut; from the celebration of a rich cultural heritage to the enduring environmental dilemmas of the present, Part Four explores the heartbreak and hope of modern Appalachia.

Writers and ecologists point to Appalachia’s own inner eye, the ways in which pain and self-discovery fortify the region’s soul. The Great Smoky Mountains, the TVA, the War on Poverty and the Appalachian Rennaisance are all part of the story. We see new attitudes and new environmental challenges, old residents coming back, new mountain lovers moving in, the Cherokees revitalized - culminating in an old tree with a new genetic make-up - the new American Chestnut, which may once again flourish in the Appalachian Forest.

Click here to order APPALACHIA.

A Production of the James Agee Film Project, a non-profit corporation. Copyright 2008.

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